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The French Art of Revenge by Mark Zero

The French Art of Revenge

by Mark Zero

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Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
by Greg McKeown
Hardcover - 260 pages
ISBN 9780804137386
Crown Business
April 2014

I’ve read a few books this year that have changed my life and this is one of them. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown is about getting rid of all those things that make you overworked, stressed and unfocused to get back to the essentials. Author McKeown breaks down the concepts into parts so you can understand the whole picture clearly and even includes some helpful drawings that enhance the message.

McKeown says there are two types of people: Non-Essentialists and Essentialists. Non-Essentialists try to do it all. They multitask and try to fit in as much as they can into their packed days. The more they think they can accomplish the more they feel accomplished. However, the author makes the case that they are stretching themselves too thin and the time and energy they can put into certain aspects of their life and career is decreased because it has to be spread across so many different tasks.

I love how the author implements the drawings and sketches. The one below effectively demonstrates the difference between putting all your energy into one thing versus putting small portions of your overall energy into many things:

The book offers a lot of advice on how to say NO to the non-essentials and yes to the essentials. Readers are encouraged to embrace routine as a means of conserving mental energy. Escape, sleep, editing, clarification, setting limits, creating buffers and boundaries are all elements of the advice. The advice can apply to many people but the examples the author provides are primarily composed of high-power executives. I was a bit offended to have to read about Jeff Bezos’ sleeping habits. I really don’t care about people like him. I’m a professional but I can’t relate to someone like that. I would have liked more examples that would people like myself who inhabit the middle and lower classes can relate to. I don’t think Essentialism is something only the rich can afford. I think anyone can become an Essentialist.

After reading this book I realized that I used to be an Essentialist and that I was happy that way. What changed was my loss of religion. When you are religious you say “no” to many things. Life can become a lot simpler and more focused when you clear the extraneous and whittle things down to what’s most important. When I stopped being religious, it wasn’t like life became a free-for-all and I said yes to everything. However, I did start saying yes to more things and found that life got more complicated and more cluttered as the years passed. I think at heart I’m an Essentialist and the Non-Essentialist lifestyle is not for me. It’s too stressful and harried. I need some simplicity and focus! I’m grateful to this book for opening my eyes to this.

Disclaimer: I received this book as part of Crown's Blogging for Books program.

The Sting Man: Inside Abscam by Robert W. Greene

The Sting Man: Inside Abscam 
by Robert W. Greene
Originally published 1982
Penguin Books
Paperback, ISBN 9780143125273
324 pages

Barnes and Noble

The movie American Hustle released late last year captivating audiences with its improvised dialogue, crazy hairstyles, 1970s fashion and style and performances by top actors including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner. The film wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but it nonetheless received much admiration and acclaim and garnered 10 Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor – Bradley Cooper, Best Supporting Actress – Jennifer Lawrence, Best Director – David O. Russell, Best Actor – Christian Bale, Best Actress – Amy Adams, Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing and Best Production Design). At first viewing of this film, I felt a little let down. However, as soon as I walked out of the theatre I kept thinking of the film and its been on my mind ever since. Something about the movie just stuck with me and got me thinking. One of my primary thoughts is that the film might be ahead of its time. I tend to chuckle at this notion considering the fact that the film is about the past. We may not fully appreciate it now (or perhaps we shall depending on how many Oscars it receives) but we may appreciate its genius in the future.

After seeing the movie, I was browsing my favorite sites online and saw that Biographile (a site run by Penguin Random House) featured The Sting Man: Inside Abscam by Robert W. Greene in an article. This book, published in 1982, is the definitive tome about Abscam. I entered Biographile’s giveaway and was one of the lucky winners! As soon as I got the book I started devouring it right away.

Abscam had been in the works for a few years and the FBI’s key man behind the sting was the notorious con man Mel Weinberg (Irving Rosenfield as played by Christian Bale in the film). Greene’s book follows the life of Weinberg, his early start as a con artist, his successful career conning people left and right, his romantic relationships including with his mistress Lady Diane/Evelyn (Lady Edith/Sydney as played by Amy Adams in the film), his inevitable capture by the FBI and his involvement in Abscam. While the film American Hustle is about Abscam and the filmmakers heavily relied on this book as a source of information, the film was not intended to be faithful to the original story. For example, Diane had no role in Abscam. Her participation in the Abscam is a figment of the clever filmmaker’s imagination. The real Abscam was essentially a men’s club.

The book is only 324 pages but took me quite a long time to read. Scams and cons are often really complex and this book is crammed with details. There are so many names that its hard to keep track of them all. The author uses surnames frequently enough so you can keep track of who he is referring to. But for the most part there are too many names to keep straight. For the most part, Abscam seemed overly complicated but the incredible attention to detail was necessary for what they wanted to accomplish: getting members of Congress and the Senate on tape accepting a bribe. Greene takes his time going through every single phase of Abscam. This is necessary because, although the information can be overwhelming, you get the overall sense that Abscam was a long and complicated process.

Throughout the book there are breaks that feature transcripts from tape recordings and scenes from Mel Weinberg’s life and cons. These are often entertaining breaks and a chance to pause and catch your breath before diving into more complicated details of the scam. There are plenty of these breaks and you’ll look forward to reading each and every one once they appear.

The book follows Weinberg’s life up until Abscam and then devotes a lot of time to the Abscam scandal but only one small chapter to the aftermath. Because the book was written and published so soon after the scandal broke, there might not have been enough time for the fallout of the scandal to fully develop or people may have read enough about the aftermath and wanted more about how it started and how it worked. Greene writes in a very chronological manner, hardly ever going back into time for information. This keeps readers on the straight and narrow. Deviations might have been too confusing for the reader. The last chapter was added after the book’s publication and provides us with the final chapter in the tragic life of Marie (Rosalyn as played by Jennifer Lawrence in the film), Mel’s second wife.

If you loved American Hustle and are really curious about Abscam and this moment in US history, I highly recommend reading The Sting Man. The events in Mel Weinberg’s life and in Abscam are exciting and often shocking and surprising. It certainly was a wild ride!

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

The Silent Wife 
by A.S.A Harrison
ISBN: 9780143123231 Paperback
Penguin Books
June 2013
Barnes and Noble - IndieBound - Powell's

Boy, it's been quite a long time since I've read a contemporary novel for adults. For fiction, I mostly read classics (for my classics project) or books for children and young adults (for my job). And outside of that my reading mostly consists of non-fiction. Needless to say, it felt really really good to pick up a contemporary novel and just lose myself in it.

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison follows the relationship between couple Jodi and Todd which, after 20 or so years, is quickly beginning to unravel. Because of Jodi’s hesitance, they have never married nor have they any children. Both are in their mid-to-late 40s and Todd is in the throws of a mid-life crisis. He has taken up a torrid sexual affair with Natasha, the college age daughter of his best friend Dean. The affair is successfully kept secret from both Jodi and Dean until Natasha becomes pregnant and insists that Todd leave Jodi and marry her. While it takes some prodding from Natasha, Todd is happy to embark on this new journey in life. He’s finally going to get married and be a father, two life events that Jodi has denied him during the twenty years they were together. But Todd’s new life isn’t perfect and his abandonment and betrayal is destroying Jodi.

Its not a spoiler to say that Jodi will end Todd’s life because that’s made clear at the very beginning of the book. The plot basically follows the events that lead up to his inevitable demise and what happens immediately after. I glanced at some negative reviews and found that most were disappointed because the book wasn’t a psychological thriller, that the comparison to Gone Girl others have made was inaccurate and that the plot was very slow. After reading those reviews, I’m glad that I didn’t expect a rip-roaring thriller and found that I enjoyed the book immensely and not having certain expectations helped I’m sure.

When I intially read the book description, I saw this more as a book about an unraveling relationship more than a psychological thriller. And that’s what it was. However, that’s not to say there aren’t some psychologically thrilling moments. The climax of the book was so disturbing to me that I had to put the book aside and relay my thoughts to happier things so I wouldn’t be too emotionally unsettled to continue. And yes I am a sensitive reader, more so than most, but it doesn’t discredit the power of the climax which I thought was particularly well done. The pace of the book worked for me. Jodi moves slowly and methodically and Todd’s life moves like he had just pressed the fast forward button. The 28 chapters in Part 1 go back and forth between Jodi (Her) and Todd (Him) until it reaches Part 2 where it is all about Jodi and the aftermath of Todd’s death. I’m a big fan of alternating chapters, especially when what they’re alternating between opposites (present/past, him/her, good/evil, etc.) or two different perspectives (Jodi/Todd). The alternating chapters worked particularly well in this book.

The book, while very enjoyable, wasn’t without its flaws. I didn’t feel much of anything for Jodi but then again I’m not really sure we are supposed to. Jodi is a psychologist and is calm, reserved and methodical. I found it hard to connect with her but also felt remorse for her situation. I didn’t have much in common with Todd either but I felt he was a much more interesting character than Jodi. Their relationship and the events that unfolded were fascinating to watch. I didn’t quite get why the author focused so much on Jodi’s relationships with other men (her two brothers and psychologist Gerard). Jodi’s conversations with Gerard about her brothers are given plenty of attention but I couldn’t quite connect that to Jodi’s relationship with Todd. Maybe someone else could appreciate this where as I didn’t.

If you are looking for a exciting psychological thriller, look elsewhere. If you want a thoughtful read that really explores the nuances of human relationships, then this book is for you. Unfortunately, the author A.S.A. Harrison passed away before the book’s publication. Its too bad that she couldn’t enjoy her book’s release to the world or follow it up with more insightful fiction.

Note: When I first came across this book, I noted some similarities with the Jodi Arias case. Both women are named Jodi, both had unraveling relationships and both killed their romantic partner. Other than those similarities, the two stories, the fictional one and the real life one, couldn’t be more different!
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